Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Alice Walker - Everyday Use (Overview - Part 1)

Alice Walker's story Everyday Use is intriguing after a first read. Simplistic in its plot, it conceals a deeper inquiry into what ties objects to abstract concepts people hold so dear: tradition, family, our roots, awareness of self, social standing. And why would someone find it intriguing, you might ask? Well, because many wouldn't see the idea of lending value to a discussion of mundane objects put to everyday use as something worth writing a story about. 

Notwithstanding, Walker takes us down the road of careful contemplation, turning our eyes and minds to those things that make up our daily lives, whether passed down from generation to generation or bought to fill homes (with what residents deem) a sense of happiness. What Walker possibly wants to bring to the fore is the question: "Why do we have what we have and how do we treat it?" Are possessions in the service of aestheticism and decor, or does our toil give them the needless beauty we nonetheless ascribe to them?

Given the extent of consumerism and how economies thrive on this notion, which in my view alongside greed is the primary cause of the destruction of our planet, this short story is more pertinent now than when it was first published in 1973. I'd like to invite teachers as they cover this short story in class to discuss the value of possessions in terms of remembrance, identity, and love instead of simply bringing out the character difference displayed by the two sisters. No, this is not just a twisted, antithetical version of the parable of the prodigal son returning home to his family, but a look at how dreams, years of patience and nurture, entire lives in fact imbue everything inhabiting our homes with worth. Care should be given to what we surround ourselves with, to what we throw away and what we give to others. Things are there to be used everyday to remind us of who we are, where we come from and show the next generation how to cherish what is real. If only we were more like reserved, unpretentious Maggie and less like ostentatious Dee, how different the world would be now.

If you haven't read the story yet, here's a link where you can find the text.

This first part states a few brief facts about Alice Walker's life, the story's setting and the plot.

More on the character, themes and symbols to come.

Remember to take a look at these literary terminology lists: 

Literary Terminology List

Literary Terminology List 2

For more literary analyses, click on the image.


Alice Walker – Everyday Use

  • born 1944
  • African-American activist, short story writer, novelist and poet
  • has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Color Purple (written 1982; made into a movie in 1985; 11 Academy Award nominations in 1986)

  • certainly after 1949 (when the narrator was kicked by a cow while milking it)
  • various things mentioned to narrow down dates: Polaroid camera, Hakim-a-barber and Wangero’s behavior (see below)
  • sunny day
  • farming/rural area: narrator mentions
    • the house they live in is situated in a pasture
    • the “beef-cattle peoples down the road” who are busy feeding cattle, fixing fences, putting up shelters, throwing down hay
    • she lives in a house with a yard, where “a cow comes nibbling around the edge”
    • there’s a butter churn and dasher
  • probably in the state of Georgia, since Dee was sent to a school in Augusta
  • Hakim-a-barber and Wangero’s behavior and attitude show clear signs of being strongly influenced by the Black Power movement of the 1960’s + 1970’s

  • the narrator (‘Ma’) is thinking about her daughter Dee’s arrival, stating that she and her other daughter, Maggie, will wait for her in the yard of their house
  • her mind flies to various thoughts
    • how the yard she and Maggie cleaned is an extension of the living room
    • how Maggie, envious and in awe of her sister, will be nervous until the latter leaves
    • how Dee is the child that “made it” and how Ma dreams of a happy reunion with Dee like the ones she sees on TV sometimes, where Dee would embrace her with tears in her eyes, forgetting how she is not the mother she always wanted
    • how different Dee and Maggie are
    • how the old house Dee despised burned down
    • how Dee used to read to her and Maggie, forcing make-believe stories on them before leaving for school in Augusta
    • how the house they live in now has 3 rooms, a tin roof, holes in the wall for windows and shutters held up by rawhide
    • how Dee had few so-called friends who were impressed by her wit, were nervous around her and never laughed
    • how when Dee had a boyfriend (Jimmy T), she never had time for her and Maggie, but spent time criticizing him
  • Dee arrives in a car with Hakim-a-barber: he has hair “all over his head a foot long”, she is wearing a loud dress, ostentatious earrings and bangles, she has afro-styled hair
  • Dee takes Polaroid snapshots of Ma and Maggie, making sure the house is included (as well as a cow), then kisses Ma on the forehead
  • Dee says her name is no longer Dee but Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo ("Dee is dead")
  • Ma explains that the name Dee originates from aunt Dicie and grandma Dee before her, and her mother before that, dating back before the Civil War
  • they sit to eat
  • Dee is delighted by everything she eats and sees (benches, grandma’s butter dish) and wants the churn top made by Uncle Buddy and the dasher made by Aunt Dee’s first husband Henry from the wood of a tree in the yard where the couple lived
  • Dee rifles through the trunk at the foot of Ma’s bed and wants the old quilts done by Ma and aunt Dicie from grandma’s old fabrics (quilts Ma had promised to give Maggie when she married John Thomas)
  • Dee refuses to take some of the other quilts (stitched around the borders by machine), saying Maggie won’t appreciate them as much, that she’d ruin them by putting them to everyday use (Dee had refused to take a quilt with her when she left for college, saying it was old-fashioned)
  • Ma replies she reckons and hopes Maggie will put them to everyday use
  • Dee says Maggie will ruin them after a few years of use, whereas she would hang them up; Ma says Maggie knows how to make some more because Maggie knows how to quilt
  • as Dee’s temper rises, Maggie tells Ma Dee can have the quilts; she’ll remember Grandma Dee without them
  • Ma looks at Maggie who has a look of fear but not anger towards her sister
  • Ma is struck (just like when she’s in church and the spirit of God touches her), hugs Maggie, takes the quilts out of Dee’s hands and gives them to awe-struck Maggie, telling Dee to take one or two of the others
  • Dee storms out, saying Ma doesn’t understand her heritage, telling Maggie to make something of herself
  • Ma and Maggie sit and enjoy the rest of the day until it is time to go to bed



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